"We reached the head of the Weddell
Sea, but impenetrable barriers of old ice frustrated further progress".
The Endurance close-up with ice mound.
For two days and nights every endeavour was
made to cut the ship free but the temperature continued to fall and the
ice which was broken, froze again, and matters in the end were worse than
before 14th February 1915
As time wore on it became more and more evident
that the ship was doomed. Endurance among ice pinnacles, February 1915
The long, long night the Endurance in the
Antarctic winter darkness, trapped in the Weddell Sea, 27th August 1915
"During the night take
flashlight of ship beset by pressure. This necessitated some 20 flashes,
one behind each salient pressure hummock, no less than 10 flashes being
required to satisfactorily illuminate the ship herself. Half blinded after
the successive flashes, I lost my bearings amidst hummocks, bumping shins
against projecting ice points & stumbling into deep snow drifts." - Frank
Dump Camp, the morning after the disaster
to the ship
The beginning of the end for Endurance, now
completely in the power of the ice, the ship begins to keel over
Endurance crushed to death by the icepacks
of the Weddell Sea, the sinking ship, watched by the dogs, 1st November
Frank Wild (probably) by the wreckage
of the Endurance before she slipped beneath the ice.
Hauling up the boats for the night 1916
On arrival at Elephant Island, the three
lifeboats, Dudley Docker, James Caird, and Stancomb Wills
with Shackleton and his crew deciding on the next step.
The Endurance battled
her way through a thousand miles of pack ice over a six week period and
was one hundred miles - one days sail - from her destination, when on the
18th of January 1915 at 76°34'S, the ice closed in around her.
dropped dramatically cementing together the loose ice that surrounded the
ship as the ship's storekeeper wrote, she was "Like an almond in a
piece of toffee".
For Shackleton, the disappointment
must have been bitter, he was 40 years old, his country was at war, the
expedition had taken huge amounts of effort and energy to prepare, he was
unlikely to have this opportunity again.
Nevertheless, his men looked
towards "the Boss" as they called him. This collection of Royal Naval
sailors, rough and ready trawler hands and recent Cambridge University graduates
amongst others were now dependent on the man who had led them to this place
and this very unfortunate predicament.
The ship was drifting to
the southwest with the ice. Attempts were made to free the ship when
sometimes cracks appeared in the ice nearby, but to no avail. The ice around
the ship itself was thick and solid. Men with heavy improvised ice chisels
and iron bars breaking the ice up near the ship and the ship at full speed
ahead had no effect at all and the ship continued to drift.
By the end of February, temperatures
had fallen and were regularly -20°C, the ship was now clearly frozen in
for the winter. The worry was where the drifting ice would take them
and would it be possible to break out in the spring? The sides of the ship
were cleared so that if the ice began to press together, then hopefully
the Endurance would be able to rise above the ice and ride on it
rather than being crushed.
This eventuality had not really
been planned for and the men became frustrated and restless, football and
hockey games were regular features on the sea ice until the darkness of
the Antarctic winter began. Sunrise glows came in early July heralding the
return of the sun and daylight, but the weather was not kind with regular
blizzards and low temperatures. Most worrying of all was the pressure from
the ice, floes began to "raft" over each other.
Everyone knew that one of two
things would happen, either the pack ice would thaw, break up and disperse
in the spring, so freeing the ship, or it would consolidate and driven by
the effects of wind and tide over hundreds of miles of sea would take hold
of and crush the ship - like a toy in a vice.
"The ice is
rafting up to a height of 10 or 15 ft. in places, the opposing
floes are moving against one another at the rate of about 200
yds. per hour. The noise resembles the roar of heavy, distant
surf. Standing on the stirring ice one can imagine it is disturbed
by the breathing and tossing of a mighty giant below"
The men went out to look for
fresh meat for the dogs and themselves in the form of seals and penguins,
they were still in low supply having disappeared at the start of winter,
a few were taken at the end of September.
On Sunday, October 23rd their
position was 69°11'S, longitude 51°5'W. The Endurance was under heavy
pressure from the ice and not held in a good position, instead of being
able to slip upwards with the increasing pressure, the ice had hold of her.
The first real damage was to the stern-post which twisted with the planking
buckling in the same area, she sprang a leak. The bilge pumps were started
and the leak was initially kept in check.
On October 27th Shackleton wrote,
"The position was lat. 69°5'S, long. 51°30'W. The temperature was -8.5°F,
a gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun shone in a clear sky.
After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope
beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled
to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted,
we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that
lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition.
It is hard to write what I feel".
The Endurance had
drifted at least 1186 miles since first becoming fast in the ice 281 days
previously, she was 346 miles from Paulet Island, the nearest point
where there was any possibility of finding food and shelter.
Shackleton ordered the boats,
gear, provisions and sledges lowered onto the ice. The men pitched
five tents 100 yards from the ship but were forced to move when a pressure
ridge started to split the ice beneath them. "Ocean Camp" was established
on a thick, heavy floe about a mile and a half from what was fast becoming
the wreck of the Endurance.
The Endurance finally
broke up and sank below the ice and waters of the Weddell sea on November
21st 1915. The men had saved as many supplies as they could (including
Frank Hurley's precious photo archive) before she disappeared.
The 28 men of the expedition
were now isolated on the drifting pack ice hundreds of miles from land,
with no ship, no means of communication with the outside world and with
limited supplies. What was worse was that the ice itself was now starting
to break up as the Antarctic spring got under way. On December 20th Shackleton
decide that the time had come to abandon their camp and march westward to
where they thought the nearest land was, at Paulet Island.
They had three lifeboats named
after patrons of the expedition who had donated funds. Two of these were
now manhauled in relays, the James Caird and Dudley Docker.
The third boat, the Stancomb Wills was left behind. If the ice began
to disappear under them, the men would take to the 20 foot boats.
a year's incessant battle with the ice, we had returned........to
almost the same latitude we had left with such high hopes and
aspirations twelve months previously; but under what different
conditions now! Our ship crushed and lost and we ourselves drifting
on a piece of ice at the mercy of the winds"
Shackleton, On New Year's
Some of the men led by Frank
Wild returned to the area where the Endurance had been to retrieve
the Stancomb Wills. They were all forced into the boats on April
9th and made their way across a stretch of open water, by the evening they
were able once again to haul the boats onto a large ice floe and pitch
That the men kept going during
this time was a tribute to Shackleton's leadership skills and his abilities
and understanding of the importance of keeping up morale. The whole
group were kept together in the monotonous and strenuous task of pulling
laden lifeboats across broken up and ridged ice floes. It was now 14 months
since the Endurance had become frozen into the ice and nearly 5 months
since she had sank marooning them in a featureless icy wilderness. On April
12th Shackleton found that instead of making good progress westwards, they
had actually traveled 30 miles to the east as a result of the drifting ice.
They did however spot Elephant Island, part of the South Shetlands group
and headed that way in seas that were by now largely open for navigation.
They made landfall on Elephant Island being ecstatic to do so. It had been
497 days since they had last set foot on land.
Their first landing place
wasn't ideal by any means, but they soon found a more appropriate place
to make camp.
"As we clustered
round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our
faces, we were quite a cheerful company...Life was not so bad.
We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the
surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm"
For the time being they were
more safe and secure than they had been for a long time, but they were still
stranded far from civilization with no-one knowing where they were or what
their condition was. There was no chance of rescue. No ships passed that
way. No radio at that time was capable of summoning help.
The outside world was not
going to come to Elephant Island.
Shackleton realised that
in order to effect a rescue, he was going to have to travel to the nearest
inhabited place which was the whaling station back on South Georgia, some
800 miles distant and across the most stormy stretch of ocean in the world.
They expected to encounter waves that were 50 feet from tip to trough "Cape
Horn Rollers" in a 22 foot long boat. Their navigation was by a sextant
and a chronometer of unknown accuracy, they were dependent on sightings
of the sun that could sometimes not be seen for weeks in the overcast weather
so characteristic of these latitudes.
Shackleton chose Frank Wild
to stay behind with the men on Elephant Island as he felt that he could
hold them together well. If there was no rescue by the spring they were
to try and reach Deception Island. The lifeboat chosen for the journey
was the James Caird, it was made seaworthy by whatever limited
means were available and equipped with a part cover against the weather
and the sea. Launching her was eventful with many of the men being soaked
to the skin, a serious matter in the cold climate and with very limited
facilities for drying their clothes out and getting warm again.
The party left behind on Elephant
Island used the two remaining life boats to make a hut, they were turned
upside down and placed on top of two low stone walls, tent and sail fabric
were used as lining to keep the wind and weather out. The men were even
able to make small celluloid windows from an old photograph case, a blubber
stove provided heat and was used as a cooker. Conditions were cramped and
food was in short supply. One of the party, Blackborow, (little more than
a boy who had joined the ship as a stow-away in Buenos Aries when his companion
had been hired though he had not) suffered from frostbitten toes. These
were amputated by the surgeons by the meager light given out by the blubber
the voyage of the James Caird
The men left behind on Elephant Island
Historical photographs on this page by permission
of National Library of Australia